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'Emotional event': N.C. Air Guard flies to fight Airzona fires

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

Roger Williams had a jumble of thoughts in his mind Sunday as he prepared for a firefighting mission in Arizona.

Last week was the anniversary of a plane crash that killed four of his comrades fighting wildfires in South Dakota. And it had been just a week since 19 other firefighters died battling the blaze that he and his men were about to visit. Then, within an hour of departure from Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Sunday, he learned that two of the planes set to go on the mission were having maintenance problems.

“For me personally, it’s an emotional event,” said Williams, commander of the N.C. Air National Guard’s 145th airlift wing, who was piloting one of the planes on Sunday. “It’s hard to get back out after the aftermath, but we’ve got a mission to do.”

The Charlotte base sent more than 30 members to fight the fires in response to a U.S. Forest Service request, Lt. Col. Rose Dunlap of the N.C. Air National Guard said. They are expected to be deployed at least until the first week of August.

Williams said that the fatal July 1, 2012, plane crash that killed four of his comrades during a mission fighting wildfires in South Dakota remains “in the back of my mind.”

But “we’ve been called to help our neighbors, and that’s what we do....We’ve got to get back on that horse,” he said.

Arizona authorities have been battling wind-driven wildfires since mid-June. On June 30, 19 men from an elite crew died while fire fighting in a forest northwest of Phoenix.

Charlotte’s Air National Guard unit is one of four in the nation, and the only one on the East Coast, equipped with what are called MAFFS units. Mobile Airborne Fire-Fighting Systems are van-sized tanks that are loaded onto C-130 cargo planes to spread fire retardant from low altitudes.

Led by small spotter planes operated by the U.S. Forest SERVICE, the C-130 crews can dump 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant along the leading edge of a wildfire in less than 5 seconds, covering an area a quarter-mile long and 100 feet wide. Back at base, a MAFFS tanker can recharge its load in less than 12 minutes and return to the fire.

Since June 11, MAFFS aircraft have made 72 drops on fires in Arizona and Colorado, discharging 196,505 gallons of fire retardant.

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Sunday, three C-130s left from the Charlotte base and headed to Mesa, Ariz.

Before take-off, Master Sgt. Jermaine Parker, who has worked as a senior load master with MAFFS units for 10 years, acknowledged the risk in the mission.

“There’s no part of aviation that doesn’t have a hint of danger to it,” he said. “That’s why we train so hard.”

But Parker said he continues fighting wildfires to protect affected families but also to honor his fallen comrades. “Every day, we think about them,” he said. “We carry them with us everywhere we go.”

Arriero: 704-358-5945; On Twitter: @earriero
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